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Brier Dudley's blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

March 26, 2012 at 10:17 AM

Clearwire, layoffs and the future of 4G wireless service

Garet Martin is ahead of the curve.

The Portland resident experienced the future of 4G wireless service last week, and it wasn’t pretty.

Martin gets wireless home broadband and phone service from Bellevue-based Clearwire.

She’s generally pleased with the $63-a-month package, even though she has to move her modem when a particular tree gets leafy in the summer and interferes with the signal coming across the Willamette River.

ClearHomeModemSeriesG.jpg

It was all fine until earlier this month, when she lost access to her voice-mail box. She called me after she had been stuck for nearly two weeks, only getting a recorded message saying her voice mail “is temporarily unavailable.”

A series of calls to Clearwire’s customer-service numbers went nowhere. Visits to a Clearwire outlet in Portland led to more dead-ends, but she did learn others were having the same problem with their voice mail.

Martin’s situation was a little unusual, but I’ll bet customer service will be a growing challenge over the next year or two for wireless companies.

A storm is brewing: Phone companies are rushing to build-out fourth-generation wireless networks better able to handle the crush of data from smartphones, tablets and other mobile-computing devices.

Consumers have become dependent on wireless devices, and most are upgrading to smartphones that are more complex.

To cover the cost of their network upgrades, phone companies are making some changes. They’re moving toward more complicated pricing plans that meter data service.

At the same time, phone companies are diverting resources away from customer service and toward network upgrades. As we’ve seen over the past month, this has led to huge layoffs at call centers.

T-Mobile USA last week said it’s closing seven centers, cutting 1,900 jobs so it can afford a $4 billion upgrade to 4G LTE technology. Verizon earlier said it’s closing three centers, including one with 850 employees in Bellevue.

These follow a string of layoffs at other companies, including Clearwire.

In some ways Clearwire is a bellwether. It was the first company to offer true 4G wireless broadband, but the expensive network project led to sweeping layoffs and restructuring in 2010.

Clearwire’s shifting strategy led to the problems Martin encountered this month. But she didn’t learn that from the company she’s been supporting for several years.

Customer-service reps were stumped with her problem, and her extended waits on the phone ended in frustration.

“Frankly, all the people I reach in the Philippines and India … they all say how sorry they are, but they can’t really do anything — they can’t or won’t give me a supervisor or tell me where I can call in the United States,” she said.

The reps told Martin “they know there’s a problem and they told me there are a lot of people who are calling, but they just can’t help me.”

Martin isn’t your ordinary frustrated customer. She said she used to head the Better Business Bureau’s complaint department in San Francisco. After moving to Portland, she became a community activist.

“I love handling disputes,” she said.

It makes you wonder what a less-motivated customer would have done. I’d have thrown my Clearwire modem out the window after those calls.

Instead, Martin drove to a Clearwire retailer in Portland. A person there gave her a number for a corporate office, which was always busy when she called, and for a regional office in Portland that turned out to have been vacated.

The sales outlet had a Clearwire sign but stopped selling Clearwire service and now sells other plans. Still, an employee told her other Clearwire customers had come to complain about the voice-mail problem.

Finally Martin began calling reporters.

I contacted Clearwire last Tuesday and asked if there were any service problems in Portland or Seattle. The initial response was that there were no network problems, outages or service disruptions.

Martin was still stuck, so I tried again with Clearwire, explaining that some customers were apparently unable to access voice mail.

A spokesman then replied that Clearwire is shifting the operation of its home-phone service to a third-party vendor. Customers who try their voice-mail password repeatedly during this process could get locked out.

Clearwire no longer sells this phone service to new customers. It’s now mostly focused on providing wholesale service that larger companies use to supplement their networks.

Still, it continues to support 1.3 million retail customers, including perhaps 100,000 using the home-phone service.

“The service didn’t really make sense as a long-term product for us,” spokesman Mike DiGioia said.

Most customers didn’t notice the back-end provider changed, he said. But some were caught in the migration and had their mailbox PIN codes locked up.

I guess that’s understandable, but Clearwire dropped the ball by not informing its call centers of the issue. After our exchange, it set up a process for call centers to resolve it, DiGioia said.

But after I passed this on to Martin and she tried again with customer service Thursday, it still didn’t work. DiGioia noted the fix could take 24 to 36 hours to take effect, but offered to intervene.

“We’re sorry it happened, but we’re working to make it right for them,” he said.

Martin opted to have me share her name with the company, rather than wait another day. That afternoon she was on the phone with Geoff Levy, Clearwire head of customer care, and a product manager, who immediately fixed the problem.

“I’m getting two months of free service, but I still gave him hell,” Martin said. “I told him I can’t believe you treat your customers this way and you weren’t more proactive.”

Even so, Martin will keep using the wireless service she’s grown to depend upon.

“I’ll probably stick with them for quite a while, unless I have more problems,” she said. “There really isn’t anything competitive now.”

Comments | Topics: 4G, broadband, Broadband

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